[guest post by JVW]
Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine, died earlier today at the Playboy mansion at the age of 91. As of this moment, no details have come forth as to the cause of death, but he had apparently been in failing health for some time now.
The basic rudiments of Hefner’s life are pretty well known (this link to his biography on Playboy’s website is potentially NSF; this link to an entry at biography.com should be ok): born in Chicago, educated at the University of Illinois, service in World War II as a reporter for an armed forces newspaper. While working at Esquire, Hefner scraped together enough money to start his own magazine in 1953, and fortuitously acquired the famous Norma Jean Baker (later known as Marilyn Monroe) nude photos from a 1949 calendar shoot, one of which became the centerfold in the magazine’s first issue published in December 1953. Playboy would go on to spawn an early cable television show, a set of private clubs, a resort, movies, and later a television channel and subscription website.
Contrary to conventional belief, Playboy was far from the first magazine to print nude images of women, but it was the first to attempt to bracket those nudes with insightful commentary, fashion tips, fiction from noted authors, and reviews of literature and the arts. If you look at a Playboy from the 1950s, one striking feature is how innocent it actually seems. The nudity is usually coy and subtle, and early issues of the magazine often only featured one or two actual nude pictures (most pictures were semi-nude, where the subject discretely covered herself in some way). As the Eisenhower Fifties morphed into the Kennedy Sixties, then to the age of hippies and free love, the magazine expanded its boundaries and gradually became bolder and more assertive in its nudity, helped along by competition from other magazines and the ubiquity of nudity in movies, theater, and even in public. In 1975, 20 years into the magazine’s run, Playboy had a circulation of 5.6 million for each monthly issue.
Today the magazine’s circulation is at about one-twelveth of that peak, back when it was estimated that one in four college men purchased the magazine every month. Playboy disastrously decided to stop running nudes in late 2015 only to reverse course and go back to the nekkid gals about a year later. But with the mainstreaming of sex and nudity in our society — in movies still, but now also on television and the Internet — Playboy is having a difficult time finding its market niche. Seeing “the girl next door” naked in the centerfold is no longer as big of a deal now that the she is posting nude selfies on Snapchat.
While there are likely some positive contributions from Playboy over the years — the Playboy Interviews (some of which were conducted by Hefner), Robert Christgau’s music reviews, Dan Jenkins’ column on sports, and fiction from some top authors — the overall influence of Playboy on our society is far more mixed, perhaps even largely negative. Hefner used his monthly column in which he laid out “the Playboy Philosophy” to advocate for a rather left-wing/libertine political platform, haughtily disdainful of anything that he thought faintly echoed of conservatism or traditional American values. Playboy made many young women into household names (well, in a certain kind of household if you know what I mean), and launched the careers of Jayne Mansfield, Stella Stevens, Shannon Tweed, and Pamela Anderson among others. At the same time, Playboy also caused considerable grief and tragedy in the lives of several of its models. A very good 50th anniversary of the magazine which ran on the E! network fourteen years ago was very direct in discussing the Playboy Playmates who ended up regretting their decisions to pose, oftentimes dealing with substance abuse, eating disorders, and even in a few cases suicide. If sexual urges were indeed sublimated in post-war America before Playboy came on the scene, surely we must acknowledge that today we are saturated with base lust and carnal desire, and perhaps that is not really progress after all.
As the final chapter of his life has now drawn to a close, let’s acknowledge that Hugh Hefner built a business and had a very major impact upon our society, and that it remains an open question of whether or not it was all for the better. Rest in peace.